Michael Vaden holding a baby yellowbill hornbill. Photo by Jesse Walker

Michael Vaden holding a baby yellowbill hornbill. Photo by Jesse Walker

By Stephanie Johns

Staff Writer

Morgan County may get its own zoo, thanks to two business partners: Michael Vaden and Bill Killmer.

Vaden currently raises exotic birds such as hornbills, cranes, jays, toucans, kookaburras, and storks, at his aviary in south Morgan County off of Highway 83.

He said he’s become “pretty well known” for raising birds others aren’t capable of raising. Among those he’s helped: the Atlanta, San Diego, Nashville, and Audubon zoos and the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park in Florida. Also, he’s working with a bird park in Indonesia to help them get their hornbills online.

Vaden explained that having a zoo will allow him to do even more in this area as there are some conservation efforts he can’t contribute to without it: “For some of those we have to be open to the public.”

Killmer is an award-winning landscape architect, Vaden said, noting, “We plan to have open greenspace and cool exhibits in between.”

“Pretty much what I am to animals, he is to plants,” Vaden said.

Vaden said he and Killmer talked about making the aviary public and, as their discussions continued, decided on a full-blown zoo.

He said the types of animals on display would primarily be aviaries with animal exhibits of zebras, giraffes, and sloths, to name a few, located in between.

There also will be a petting zoo aspect he said. Currently he and his family are training lorikeets to drink nectar from a cup.

This is a pretty popular hands-on activities for kids to do when they visit zoos, he said, adding that it’s also often mentioned as the kids’ favorite part of their visit.

He also would like to add aspects of a nearby dairy farm, he said.

While an aviary would draw bird enthusiasts, it would not draw as many people as a zoo would, he said.

“We’re looking to kind of take it to the next level,” he said.“We’re looking to do something world-class, something the county would be proud of.”

When asked how the zoo plans to compete with Zoo Atlanta, Vaden responded: “We don’t plan to compete with them. We’re going to offer a different feel and a different experience.”

As to how the two zoos compare in size, Vaden said Zoo Atlanta has 35 acres, only two more acres than Vaden currently owns.

He noted that there’s enough in this part of Georgia to keep visitors coming back. He added that they also plan to continually add and develop exhibits to keep it fresh and new.

“When they come, we want them to come back,” he said. “It’s just good business.”

Not only do they have plans for visitors, they also have plans to create educational programs for students in the local school systems as well as vet students at the University of Georgia (UGA).

“I love teaching and having kids around and making a difference,” he said.

Vaden noted that the UGA students might possibly staff the zoo as well as work as interns there.

“This is a huge opportunity for UGA,” he said. “Right now, UGA doesn’t work with living exotics.”

Vaden said they don’t yet know what they will charge for admission nor whether or not the zoo will be available for private events.

They do have a safety protocol already, he said.

“It covers tornados, inclement weather, medical emergencies to animal escapes,” he said. He explained that their protocol was created using similar protocols from established zoos.

Creating a zoo will happen in stages, he said. Phase one, set to open on the 33 acres of property Vaden currently owns, will be spring 2014.

One of the steps along the way to opening day: going before the Morgan County Planning Commission, which he did just last week.

Planners voted both to recommend county staff’s proposed text amendment adding language pertaining to zoos to the county’s zoning ordinance and also to recommend approval of the zoo to the Morgan County Commission.

During the meeting planners heard from two people: one neighbor, William Pettit, who spoke in opposition, Andrew O’Connell, who spoke in favor, and Bob Hughes, president and economic development director of the Madison-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce, who also spoke in favor of the zoo, citing the economic impact it could have on the community.

Planners also had copies of letters shared with the county regarding the proposed zoo: Cornelius Vason Jr. shared several concerns he has about the zoo in one letter while more than a dozen people and organizations wrote letters of support on behalf of the zoo.

This wasn’t Vaden’s first time before the planners. He came before them in 2010 requesting a license for his taxidermy business.

In 2010 Morgan County Planning and Development Director Chuck Jarrell had a concern about allowing Vaden to operate a taxidermy business on his property because Vaden’s property was at the entrance of a subdivision.

When asked if he had a similar concern about a zoo going in at the same location, Jarrell explained that Vaden and Killmer are negotiating to buy the remaining lots in the subdivision.

“This is mitigating that,” he said, adding that Killmer also owns parcels of land in that area.

Jarrell said that when staff was approached with this idea they did a lot of research, which included a visit to Zoo Atlanta as well as to Vaden’s current aviary to view enclosures.

He suggested that anyone with questions or concerns about the zoo attend the upcoming meeting of the planning commission.

Following that meeting the zoo proposal went before the Morgan County Commission this past Tuesday. (Because of the holiday and early publication deadline, the paper already had gone to press before this meeting occurred.)

If commissioners grant a conditional use permit to allow the zoo, Vaden said they plan to have phase one of the zoo open by late spring or early summer 2014.

Toward that end they have done feasibility studies, contacted other zoo directors, and selected a great location out of the city.

“I think we can make it work,” he said.

Vaden has a lifetime of museum experience: he’s worked in museums since he was eight years old, started designing exhibits at 13, and was doing taxidermy for them by 18.

Through his taxidermy career he has done work for the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History, the Putnam Museum in Davenport, Iowa, the Fernbank Museum in Atlanta, and the Museum of Science and Discovery in Fort Lauderdale.

For the Mississippi Museum of Natural History he’s mounted 100s of birds over the years, and from bison to mountain lions to emus.

“I was their go-to guy,” he said. “It’s been fun: I’ve always done fun stuff.”

He added that he was a science geek drawn to doing something good with the skulls and skins left behind once an animal was gone.

As noted on his website, taxidermymount.com, his business “is internationally recognized for its expertise in exotic as well as domestic specimens.”

Editor’s Note: The Morgan County Board of Commissioners, at their Tuesday, June 2 meeting, voted to table a decision on Vaden’s proposal after a neighbor objected to it, citing too little time to consider the potential ramifications. The commissioners, however, did OK the text amendment to county ordinances that would allow a zoo in the county. Vaden’s proposal will come up again at the next commissioners’ meeting July 16.